|HAVEN OF REST by Douglas Gurton of Tollesbury.
Rumours were rife in the village in the early twenties that
"large ocean going liners" would be coming to lay-up in the River Blackwater.
As a small boy at the time I was keenly interested in this, and spent a
great deal of my leisure at "Woodup" trying to glean information from the
brothers Joe and Laban Pearce of the Oyster Company or of the craftsmen at
Drake Bros., who indulgently allowed me to use their chisels and saws to make model boats.
However, it was not until June 1922 that the first ship arrived.
I remember the day well, it was Derby Day and appropriately enough a horse named "Captain Cuttle" had won the race.
As my usual custom I want to Woodrolfe late in the afternoon, and saw
Messrs. Alf and Will Drake who were in merry mood and there was a deal of good
natured chaff and banter amongst them and their staff of craftsmen.
I was greeted with the words "Your ship has arrived and is off the Pier".
I could wait to hear no more, and took to my heels, leaping along the railway track to the Pier hoping not to meet either Messrs. Gallant or Lawrence on the way, as it was forbidden to walk along the railway lines.
In a matter of minutes I had reached the end of the railway line at the Pier Station, I climbed up the path to the Pier entrance, but could not see any ship.
Walking a short distance along the Pier, I then espied a small black steamer with "woodbine" funnel. Needless to say I was most disappointed.
The ship proved to be the "Gordon Castle" 2,824 tons, of the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co., and it was the first of many ships, large and small, to lay-up in the River Blackwater in the next 55 years. The "Gordon Castle" was closely followed by other ships of the
same company, the handsome "Dunvegan Castle" and "Carisbrooke Castle",
three masted ships of about 8,000 tons each, resplendent in the
Union-Castle colours of lavender grey hull, red boot topping, and large
red and black topped funnel.
These were the first passenger ships to arrive, and had performed
good service on the Cape route, were used as
troop ships during the Boer War 1900-1902, and the "Carisbrooke Castle"
a truly magnificent ship with beautiful wood paneling in the staterooms
had been closely associated with the explorer Cecil Rhodes.
Within a matter of weeks the liner "Llanstephan Castle", 11,293 gross tonnage,
anchored off the Pier and was later joined by two fairly modern cargo ships of
the same company, the "Bratton Castle" and "Sandown Castle".
These were known as "black ships" being painted black in contrast to the
lavender grey hulls of the passenger liners.
Union-Castle Line had quite a fleet of ships laid up in the Blackwater,
a sad sign of the recession in trade at the end of the Great War 1914-18.
The master of the "Llanstephan Castle" a Capt. Bowden-Smith was in charge,
and each ship had a nucleus of key personnel on board, usually the bo'sun,
carpenter, engineer or donkeyman and a member of the catering staff.
At first the Oyster Company's motor launch "Dan" waited on the ships,
and the "Crab and Winkle" train resumed a regular service to the Pier Station.
This was discontinued as uneconomic and village tradespeople had to make their
own arrangements to get supplies to the ships.
For a time the platelayers' four wheeled hand propelled bogey was used to convey stores to the Pier.
Mr. John Leavett used a motor boat to convey stores to the ships.
The shipkeeping crews had to use the ships' lifeboats to get to the Pier
when a motor launch was not available. No ship at that time had a motor boat
which could be used, and ships lifeboats require a full crew to become manageable under oars or sail in a tideway, especially a River like the Blackwater.
The ships' crews laid boats moorings, consisting of anchors, blocks and tackle
on the east side of the pier-head to enable the ships' boats to be hauled clear of the pier after discharging passengers or crew members and also to allow the boats to be drawn in to the pier steps when wishing to embark.
Large wooden chests were constructed by the ships' personnel and placed on the
pier-head for the reception of stores from the tradespeople.
These chests were never locked.
A restricted ferry service being established between the ships and the Pier,
members of the crews began to mingle with the villagers.
Capt. Bowden-Smith, a most genial gentleman, endeared himself to the
children by buying sweets at the nearby shops and distributing them.
However, life aboard the anchored ships could be very boring, as little
maintenance work could be done, it being simply a matter of keeping machinery
and deck equipment in order.
The local churches were fully alive to the problems of having an influx of men
in the village, when the only source of relaxation was possibly the public houses of which there were four at that time.
Consequently the Vicar and Minister got in touch with the major charitable
organisations for the seamen, the Missions to Seamen and
British Sailors' Society, and libraries were established at the Vicarage and Manse for use by the ships' crews. Social events and dances were organised and held at the Institute and Parish Room, usually on a Wednesday or Saturday evening.
The presence of the ships in the River tended to alter the accepted way of life
in the village, especially at week-ends. Instead of the traditional
walk round "D'Arcy" and back home, it became a walk to the Pier-head
to see the ships, stretching from the Nass to Thurslet, and being careful
where one placed one's feet as the pier deck planking was not too good.
At the end of 1922 the laid-up ships of the Union-Castle Line, were joined by two outsiders,
the three-masted barque "Killoran" which had as its solitary shipkeeper, Capt. David Schenk Cromarty,
a former master of this fine sailing vessel, and the large four masted barque "Garthpool" which had a number of young officers and apprentices on board.
The two sailing ships presented a fine sight and were anchored between the Pier and Bathing House Creek.
In appreciation of the hospitality extended to the ship-keeping crews by the village, conducted visits
by motor launch were made to the anchored liners and the two sailing ships.
One young officer named Craig gave a splendid exhibition of diving when he sprang from the fore-yard of "Garthpool" some 70 feet above the water-line, swam underneath the ship and came up on the other side of the ship.
I was able to visit the "Killoran" but it was a frightening experience for me.
Capt. Cromarty showed me knuckledusters, blackjacks and small sandbags filled with sand about the size of socks, which he said had been used by a mutinous crew.
I was interested in two large casks, bound with brass bands and standing upright at the break of the poop. He told me to climb up and look inside. I shall never forget the sight, putrefying meat and the stench was appalling.
Little did I realise then that for the next five years I would become accustomed to the smell of pickled meat known at sea as "salt horse or junk".
By the end of 1923 the time had come for me to go to sea, arrangements had been kindly made by the Vicar (Rev. Wm Carter) in
conjunction with Mr Frederick Hasler for me to enter the Prince Line, but unfortunately due to so many ships being laid up in home waters, I had to join a tramp steamer in Algiers, North Africa, and was not to return home for the next five years.
However there was some satisfaction in being able to voyage around the world
seven times in all during that period, and to meet men and women from Tollesbury
in all parts of the world. Rev. Carter had enjoined me to write home regularly
and keep a diary. He in turn wrote me most interesting and informative letters,
which I have preserved to this day.
From the snippets of news he gave me regarding the ships in the River
I was able to sake myself known to apprentices who had sojourned in the River
for varying periods, and they were able to give me news of the village.
I realised that I was missing a great deal.
On my return to the village late in 1928, there was a complete change of scene
on the River, all the ships of Union-Castle Line had gone, the two sailing-ships had also left.
The "Killoran" had been bought by Gustaf Erikson and was to survive until 1940
when she was sunk by the surface raider "Prinz Eitel Frederic" in the Atlantic.
[ See Note 1 ]
The "Garthpool" the largest and last sailing ship under British flag had gone to Liverpool for re-rigging, and was later wrecked off Cape Verde on passage to Australia.
However there were thirty odd ships of different companies moored in the River and I was told that a number of large ships had already left for the breakers yards.
These were the liners "Norman" and "Goorkha" of Union-Castle Line, "Megantic"
of Shaw, Savill, Albion Line, and "Montrose" of Canadian Pacific, the ship on
which Dr. Crippen was arrested. [ See Note 2 ]
The last two named were the largest ships to have been laid up in the River.
The following ships had remained for varying periods: "Brynmel",
"Cedar Branch" ,"Apple Branch", "Pear Branch", "Elder Branch",
"London Commerce", "London Mariner", "London Merchant", "British Prince",
"Royal Prince", "Imperial Prince", "Japanese Prince", "Javanese Prince",
"Ballena", "Bogota", "Voltaire", "Hannah", "Gretavale", "General Church",
"Port Nicholson", "Port Victor", "Athellaird", "Athelmonarch", "Longwood",
"Laurelwood", "Bereby", "Benguela". "Fantee", "Boutry", "Canonessa", "Bernini",
"Boswell", "Moliere", "Orange River", "South Western Miller", "Corner Brook",
and several others.
[ See Note 3 ]
Although the majority had a nucleus of crew personnel on board, some had to
employ local fishermen or yachtsmen as shipkeepers or watchmen.
Unfortunately there had been a number of fatalities, especially amongst
some of the foreign crew members who had taken risks in getting from ship
to shore or vice versa.
Representations were made to the Board of Trade and Shipping Federation,
which led to arrangements being made with a West Mersea firm to maintain
a regular motor boat service, which survives to this day.
For a short time I was the solitary watchman on one rat infested ship,
and quote from the master's instructions of "Do's and "Don'ts" to me
"Cats - please look after the cats
- hang your cats' meat up"
- Be extra careful with the forrard riding light, as the hinge is rather weak
- don't break the glass as I have no more to fit it"
- "If you require the launch put up the flag - but remember he charges 2 or 3 shillings to call" ???
The sight of the cats lined up on the hatchway each morning was quite amusing had I nothing to give them, I feel they could have devoured me.
I took great care to secure all openings at dusk, as I could hear them scampering after the vermin.
By September 1939 all ships had left the River, either into commission once
more, or the more aged and uneconomical to the breakers yards destined for
munitions of war or more ships.
By December 1939 one ship had arrived under arrest, the small Finnish barque
"Alastor" which had been interned.
This vessel was requisitioned by the Admiralty renamed "Beaver" and became an
accommodation ship at Burnham-on-Crouch.
At the end of the war she was sold, named "The Bounty" and served for some years as a floating restaurant and museum in Ramsgate Harbour.
Towards the end of the war, ships began to return to the River, some damaged
beyond repair. Amongst these were Liberty or Victory ships constructed
hastily for wartime use. Of these the best known were the "Samlong",
damaged by E boat torpedo; "James W. Nesmith" damaged by U-boat torpedo,
stern section of "James Harrod", "Horace Binney" two sections, and in 1947
the two sections of the "Helena Modjeska" were brought into the River and
moored together presenting an incongruous sight. These vessels were afterwards
taken away and scrapped.
A number of requisitioned vessels were laid up, the "Philoctetes" formerly
a Blue Funnel liner saw service as a Naval repair ship, the former four masted
schooner "Westward" which had had a chequered career prior to the war as
floating hotel and casino, had been taken over by Admiralty as an accommodation
ship at Harwich and renamed "Badger".
A number of Adolf Hitler's "Strength through Joy" ships were also laid up in
the River until their disposal could be determined.
One of the more famous ships to come was the "Gothic" which was used by H.M.
The Queen on her voyage to the Commonwealth in 1953.
It is a sad sight to see ships laid up, for although they present limited local
employment, they highlight a world depression.
Notes by Tony Millatt October 2015
Several online sources say KILLORAN was sunk by the German raider WIDDER August 1940.
It is not easy to connect this line to a Canadian Pacific ship. The 1897 MONTROSE was wrecked on the Goodwins in 1914. The 1922 MONTROSE was a modern passenger ship that appears to have remained in service through to WW2.
The only JAPANESE PRINCE found was built 1911 and sunk 1917.
The only JAVANESE PRINCE found was built 1944.